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Being trapped inside a room with other people might not seem like a fun Friday night, but that’s the idea behind escape rooms, a type of game where players are locked inside a room and have to use the objects inside to solve puzzles, find clues and get out within a time limit.
A host of new escape rooms have opened up in Phoenix in the past year, unlocking the secrets behind creating this live game experience.
An hour is all you get to unlock the safe, steal the treasure and break out of the room. The clock is ticking.
“So six minutes have passed, and I think as a group we’ve discovered about seven puzzle pieces,” said Emmanuel Hidalgo, one of five players - or burglars - at the Phoenix Puzzle Room. They’re trying to steal a valuable object from a dimly lit study room and escape before the security guard returns.
They pull out small boxes from hiding places, which are locked so they have to find keys and decipher codes.
With 40 minutes left, the group needs a hint. They raise their hands, and the game master gives them a clue on a TV screen.
That game master is Kevin Flanagan. He’s watching the team on security cameras from a control room.
“They’ve just kind of found everything that they need to theoretically accomplish the final sequence of events,” Flanagan said as the clock showed 25 minutes remaining.
Flanagan designed this escape room tucked inside an office building in downtown Phoenix.
“If you were to draw out this game on paper, it’s kind of like a really big pyramid in which it takes two or three objects to construct the object above it going all the way up to the top,” he said.
For instance, the players find several pieces of a letter in different places, which gives them the code to crack a lock, which leads to another piece of another puzzle.
Flanagan loves this kind of stuff. But designing a puzzle room is a puzzle in its own right. At first he said he made them way too hard.
“There’s one puzzle in particular, the card puzzle,” he said. “You think it was difficult now. It was far more difficult before.”
They did a lot of beta testing on volunteers, then opened in October last year. Flanagan said getting into this new business was a roll of the dice. But they hit the market at just the right moment.
“At the time when we started doing it there were only two other escape rooms in Phoenix,” he said.
Now there are about 15 in Arizona, peppered around the Valley and Tucson.
In this one, there are seven minutes remaining. The team makes their escape with 6:26 left on the clock.
Suzanne Day said teamwork was both the best and most frustrating part of the experience.
“It’s like a group project in college, right? You hate to have somebody else responsible for part of your grade. But I needed these guys, and we worked together and it was fun,” she said.
It’s a one-time experience. That’s the thing with this business, you don’t get a lot of repeat customers. There’s a question of whether the escape room trend is running against its own clock.
“The idea of something that’s repeatable is something that a lot of people have been struggling to come up with,” Flanagan said. “When I talked to people who said it couldn’t be done, I kind of went, well, I think I might be able to do it.”
That’s the next puzzle to solve.